We currently live in a time of pre-packaged rappers, meticulously media trained within an inch of authenticity, wearing masks. These ready-made rappers follow a formula, hoping to gain fan favor through an image, especially in this dreary industry climate. Brooklyn-based rapper Jean Grae has never been one for disguises or maintaining a groomed image. Since her 2002 debut album, Attack of the Attacking Things, she’s been exactly who she says she is.
Jean regularly and cleverly expounds on her personal experiences within sixteen bars. When things go awry in relationships, she adds another installment to the “Love Story” saga she’s been building. No topic is off-limits: when she had an unplanned pregnancy as a teen, she aptly described every detail of the occurrence and what happened after. When hip hop broke her heart, she decided to retire. Then she came back when she was good and ready.
The fact that her name is inspired by a superhero is no coincidence. She is stronger, tougher and faster than most, without a disguise or a particular image. As she prepares for the release of her latest LP, Cake or Death, maybe it’ll be a chance for these wack masked emcees to catch up.
HipHopDX: How close is Phoenix to being complete? What’s happening with it? Has it evolved into Cake or Death?
Jean Grae: Oh no! Phoenix is a completely different album. We actually recorded Phoenix a couple years ago, so Phoenix has been done and ready to go for quite a while now. It was around the same thing I started recording Cake or Death which you know then had the moniker of Prom Night. It was a little bit different. It was a totally separate project and I think we felt, we wanted to hold to it for awhile especially because the tone of Cake is so different, it would be nice to drop it a little bit after that, to satisfy the underground heads with something.
DX: Why’d you decide to name it Phoenix? Was it specifically based on the phoenix rising from the ashes?
Jean Grae: Stage names are kinda just stage names and I look at them as such, and in choosing Jean Grae, it was great because I was like there are so many things that I can evolve into and so many different stories I can go into: [The Dark Phoenix Saga], [and the character] Madelyne Pryor… The whole story of it was really great and it has a chance to grow. I guess I didn’t really think that I’d have to go through the whole death and rebirth thing. I was like, “It sounds great!” Then I was like, “Oh shit! I’m going through it, this sucks!” So it was a very personal thing and the interesting thing is that, when you choose something like “The Phoenix” it’s like, it never stops happening. It’s not, you know, some sort of death, then resurrection and it doesn’t happen again. It’s just a continuous cycle. And it’s kinda been something that I’ve had to get used to. So I’m really happy that I chose the name and at the same time, I’m really pissed off about it. [laughs] It’s always wonderful at the rebirth stage, you know, it’s nervous… You have to learn how to walk and crawl and do everything all over again, but with the knowledge that you had before.
DX: How long are you going to hold on to Phoenix?
Jean Grae: Five-teen years!
DX: What’s the back story behind a title like, Cake or Death?
Jean Grae: It was originally titled Prom Night. Cake or Death came about from, one of my favorite comedians. I’m a huge fan of comedians in every realm, mostly stand-up. I was pretty much raised where that was the only thing we were allowed to stay up late and watch was Saturday Night Live, till three or four [a.m.]. My mom, she liked, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and for some reason, she decided that would be the one thing we could watch. And it really made me, I guess, shape my love for comedy, delivery and timing and sketches- kind of thinking of life in small sketches and scenes and improvisation in a different way. I kinda built a love for stand-up, and for comedians and for recorded performances. So one of my favorite comedians right now and has been for a few years is Eddie Izzard, who has this amazing HBO special called, Dress To Kill. What’s so amazing about him is that, you don’t even realize you’re going through an entire history lesson, because you’re able to laugh about it and you know find humor in things that aren’t necessarily funny but it’s so educational at the same time, you wanna pee on yourself. And he’s dressed as a transvestite the entire time! Just so multi-layered that it blows your mind. There was this skit he had about the Church of England and their whole thing was saying they’d take “cake or death.” And people would come in and say, “Uhh… cake?” and it would be like, “Ahoy! Cake for you! Next! Cake or death?” They’d come in and be like, “Well, I’ll have the cake!” So it’s kinda presenting people with the choice and being like, “Well who the hell would choose the other thing?” It came into play a lot of times. It came into play music wise and then presenting to the consumer like, “Which one would you like to choose? The one that’s easy and delicious and it looks pretty? Or do you wanna choose the hard world and it’s dark?” You know, you’re probably gonna fucking take cake. This album kinda chronicles the past five years of my life, and relationships and living situations. It’s um, it’s an album about boys. [laughs] And it’s kinda being at this age, and dealing with relationships and dealing with yourself in dealing with relationships. I tend to be very domestic and there was a time when, because I was recording, I was stepping away from touring and that side of me came out a lot more. I was in the house, and planting gardens, and baking bread. A lot of it was great and then I kinda felt my Rock star fading away a little bit. I definitely had a couple of relationships, not all of them, telling me that I was not as great of a Rock star as I thought I was and it was kind of a decision between that. It was kinda missing it, and being like, “Am I gonna die in this situation?” [Laughs] This cake is delicious, but I wanna be trashing hotel rooms!
DX: So Cake or Death is ready?
Jean Grae:Cake or Death is done and I’m extremely proud of it. We did Jeanius in four days, This Week was probably done in about a month, Attack of the Attacking Things was done in a week, Bootleg [of The Bootleg EP] was done in a week, and this album took five years.
DX: How personal is it shaping up to be?
Jean Grae: I think a lot of the music evolved out of the experiences I was having and I went through a really bad period of writer’s block and when I came back, the first song I’d written coming out of my block, because I’d tried recording part of the album a couple years ago and they were great songs, but I just didn’t understand where they fit, I didn’t understand the concept I didn’t know where it was going but I didn’t want to lose the songs, then I went into a really bad writer’s block, and a really bad abusive relationship that kinda took every ounce of confidence in everything. Just away from me and it was really hard, not being able to talk to people and tell them what’s going on and disappearing from friends. There were shows that I missed and I had to say, “Oh I was sick.” And it was like, no, I fucking have bruised ribs and I can’t get out of the house. So, it was going through all these things and I think the first song that really shaped the second half of Cake or Death and made it mean something was this song called “Nothing to Lose” and I wrote the first verse, recorded it, listened to it back and was like, “I’m muthafuckin’ nice!” I sat there and I cried and said, “Okay, Jean’s back. I need to get myself back.” So it took quite a lot and all things that happened in the past year, I’ve been around amazing people, my life has changed immensely in the past year and a half- just wonderful inspiration and knowing how to present all of these ideas musically and not just vocally but actual music, and not being afraid to make things a little bit uncomfortable. I think the only way I could tell the story really is… It’s gonna be fucking uncomfortable, you know? That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s not pretty.
DX: We hear 9th Wonder’s doing most of the production.
Jean Grae:9th [Wonder] didn’t do shit! [Laughs]
DX: You guys have such good camaraderie though. You got along like old friends on the A3C [Hip Hop Festival] stage!
Jean Grae: You know, it did feel like that. And I think it’s the same with people that I generally feel close to. It’s a family. 9th and I met when we were doing, “Don’t Rush Me” the same as Khrysis and myself met and Suten… Suten actually has more songs on this album, he actually did songs on Jeanius. I very much believe in us knowing each other before and making an immediate connection. I believe it was that way with everybody who’s on the album, which is a wonderful thing. Whether it be production, whether it’s Ski [Beatz] or… These are the people I really consider family and we met by starting to work together and realizing how much we connected that way. Melil, Pharaohe [Monch], or [Talib] Kweli. It’s all very, very personal connections because it had to be, otherwise it wouldn’t have been comfortable for anyone.
DX: Was “My Story” really your story?
Jean Grae: This makes me confused because since I’ve been putting out records, they have always been so immensely personal that I’m saying someone’s name or someone’s number’s in it. I’ve never really told stories that weren’t actually true. So yeah, “My Story,” was called “My Story,” I couldn’t come up with a great name for it and Ninth was like, “Let’s just call it: ‘My Story’.” So yeah, totally true. It was a song I tried recording years ago and I think the first version of it was called, “Mommy Dearest.” Recorded it and I just didn’t feel like I got the emotions across enough, felt like I needed a little bit more distance from the situation and more experience to understand how to tell it. It definitely wasn’t planned that we were going to record it on the Jeanius album, the beat came on and I was like, “Look. I wanna write to it.” And he was like, “Alright.” Everybody went out of the room for about an hour and it was the one song we recorded with nobody else in the room.
DX: Do you deliberately try and connect with fans when you write or do you find that it just happens?
Jean Grae: Fuck that! [Laughs]
DX: Did you just say ‘Fuck that’? [Laughs]
Jean Grae: Fuck that! No! [Laughs] I understand now and definitely after the Jeanius album, there were things… Interesting that you bring up “My Story,” I chose to do it, number one for myself just because I feel like this is the greatest form of talk therapy. Because it’s anything you need to get out and in addition to it being talk therapy for me, it’s if someone else doesn’t have the voice to say ‘that’ or the words to explain it then I feel like I have an obligation to do that. I really do enjoy… With something like, “My Story” it may be a bit more calculated, but certain random songs, I never know what’s gonna connect and I always get amazing letters or stories from people and I realize more now that that’s my strong suit. Cake or Death is kinda the pinnacle of “I know you muthafuckers know what I’m talking about.” And after that we can go do some other shit.
DX: Which song out of your catalogue do people approach you about the most? Why do you think that is?
Jean Grae: There’s “Love Song” which is really interesting. It was the first album and my style of writing then was just no structure, just fucking write until you’re done writing. What I decided to do in that song was start off third person and as the song moved along and I’m starting to tell the story. I’m starting to tell you that it’s me and starting to accept that it’s me but the time I get to the end of the song. I’m referring to myself as ‘I’ instead of ‘she.’ It was just a tale of really accepting your own bullshit and were you went wrong in telling the story of things and saying, “No, no, no. This is me. I’m owning up to everything that happened.” And since then, we’re actually on “Love Song Part 6” right now, which is actually on this album, Cake or Death. I’m kinda realizing them in a Pulp Fiction sort of way, not necessarily in order. And what kinda sucks is that every time I’m in a relationship, I’m like, “So you know…”
DX: You’re like, “This is going in the song.” [Laughs]
Jean Grae: [Laughs] “Just so you know.”
Every “Love Song” actually goes through… And this sounds horrible now but I guess it’s like been ten years so… My bad. It’s usually three stories, “Love Song 4” was actually one. And it was a real drunk night too. Everyone’s like, “’Love Song 4’ is awesome!” and I’m like, “I don’t know what the fuck I did on that one…” But it was specifically done that way, it was short and I wanted it to be really kinda tipsy, angst-ridden, you know. So “Love Song 6” is actually on Cake or Death, and it’s amazing. It’s done by M-Phazes who made the beat on UStream the whole time and kept bringing in musicians the next day and adding like, a guitar part the next day, and I came in the day and was like, “Are those tambourines?” And delivered me this seven minute long masterpiece and it’s beautiful and I had no idea what to do with it, then I was like, “Oh… It’s ‘Love Song.’” It went through about 15 rewrites which was gut-wrenching and horrible.
DX: Why so many?
Jean Grae: Well, my relationship went through about 15 changes. [Laughs] I had no idea how to end the song which really sucked, because every time something changed, I had to go back and completely rewrite the last verse. So yeah, that finally got done.
DX: Is “You Told Me” going on Cake or Death?
Jean Grae: “You Told Me” is actually a song for Phoenix.
DX: So you already have it on Phoenix.
Jean Grae: Yes.
DX: People are asking and you guys are holding out. And we hear you have a phantom project coming with Nottz. Are you going to discuss that?
Jean Grae: [Laughs] No! I have a couple phantom projects. I fall in love with producers and I like to think that they fall in love with me because we just have such a good time together. So there is the secret project with Nottz, which I’m not talking about. And there’s also Ski + Jean, which is myself and Ski. So that’s coming. There’s like, 90 projects… It was like, there was no Jean and now there’s just about to be eight albums worth of shit.
DX: How have your feelings changed since your retirement a few years back?
Jean Grae: Um… I’ve just gotten better at multi-tasking I guess and being like, “Okay, I can make my own rules,” and if I’m feeling like, I don’t necessarily want to rap that day, there’s tons of other things that I can do in music. I’m thankful that I have other people around me right now, where I get inspired to do other things. I’ll come and write a hook for someone or make a beat or go do a string arrangement, start writing another chapter for the book… Yeah, it’s much better having opportunities to branch out and do other things that I love, instead of feeling stuck. I guess that’s what really made it work for me, not necessarily that I wanna keep this fucking rap thing going forever.
DX: Can you remember the one thing that brought it on? Was it a specific event or occasion?
Jean Grae: I think I’d been kinda on the… “Eh, not really. I don’t really feel like doing this shit, anymore.” I’d felt like that for a while, and some days I feel like that too, but it’s normal to do that for everyone with their job. I don’t know. It was just a combination of a few things and I was just feeling extra free that morning, like, “Lemme just share. Alright. I’m done.”
DX: Have you thought about retiring since?
Jean Grae: Uh, yeah, of course.
Jean Grae: Really, the way I present it is, it’s how everybody feels about their job. It’s the same thing, and I think it’s really interesting that it’s looked at as if we should look at it differently as recording artists because it’s all the same. You get pissed off about your job and you get like, “Fuck this. I don’t wanna fucking do this anymore.” And the next morning, you wake up and say, “Alright. I’ma fucking deal with it.” It’s the same thing. It’s a job. It’s a very different kinda job, we don’t necessarily have any hours, or an office to go to, but it’s the same thing and I guess that’s the best way I can relate it. Some days you feel like it’s wonderful and fucking kicked ass and you’re like, “I’m the shit at my job,” and then some days, you’re like, “This is shit. Fuck is going on?” And I try to relate to people how it’s really normalcy to us and it’s not… We’re not necessarily allowed to feel normal about our jobs and I don’t think that’s very fair.
DX: You’ve said that you don’t specifically consider yourself a role model. Do you think any artist should?
Jean Grae: I think that I consider myself to have much more responsibility than the average person and this is because there’s a public audience on a consistent basis which is… difficult. I think I’m a role model in terms of being unapologetic and being vulnerable and being an individual but you know, um, I’m a smoker, I’m a drinker. [Laughs] I’m not necessarily trying to give that up, and be like, “Yes, well, let’s promote that,” because then I wouldn’t be promoting myself, those are certain components of me they don’t make me who I am but they’re definitely included if say, I was looking for a Gatorade sponsor, probably not the best place to go to. So I think it works if you tailor it and really fully explain where you’re coming from, you know, I’m a role model in the sense where you may accept me for who I am right now and for tomorrow who I’m going to be, and yesterday, for who I was, then I’m fine with all of that. In terms of the TMZ world we live in, no I’m not a fucking role model.
DX: Do you have any regrets regarding your career?
Jean Grae: I had a five-hour conversation with my best friend till like eight o’ clock in the morning about two days ago and the last thing we talked about was regret. So he asked me, “Really? You don’t have anything?” I was like, “I don’t know if it sounds fucked up, but no…” There’s absolutely no way I could get through to tomorrow or the next day thinking I’ve regretted all the things that I’ve done, that have taken place. Some of them could’ve been really shit decisions and you know taking my life where I didn’t need it to be, but ultimately I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with you and whatever lesson it is, it’s something I needed to learn, whether I had to teach it to myself or from somewhere else… I told him, “You can’t sit there with all those regrets. It’s the worst thing you can do. You’ll never get on with the rest of your life. You won’t be able to make new memories. Even if you wanted to have new regrets, you couldn’t make new regrets! You’re stuck!” So, no, and that’s a difficult thing to own up to because some of life is just really fucked up. But you have to learn to free yourself and allow yourself room to be something new.
DX: What’s the best thing about your life right this moment?
Jean Grae: Understanding what my freedom is and finally getting out of my own way. I tend to thrive in the midst of chaos and there are a lot of decisions that I’ve made that stress me into chaos and not even just stress me into chaos but everyone around me. And they’re like, “Fuck is going on here? You are a crazy person.” Learning how to control that chaos into a… Remember in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s when they had those stupid electrical balls, where you’d put your hand on it and the electricity would move over to your side? My chaos normally would be, I would see that ball and be like, “Lemme break that open.” Oh man, it would go everywhere. And I’d be like, “Oh man, this is great!” So right now, I’ve learned how to keep it inside of the ball and when I need to climb inside of it and create or find whatever it is inside the chaos that I need to I can get in, get out, everybody’s safe. I can’t eliminate it, because I understand it works for me in some way. And fucking getting out of your own way. You know what that means. Nobody’s even in your lane. Nobody’s ever stopping you from doing anything except for you and until you own up to it, you can’t realize your own potential and your own greatness.